Turkeys, Literal and Metaphorical

Turkey, NYC, c. 1996

Turkey, NYC, c. 1996

The professional turkey, black with a scarlet head, relaxing in his crate, was rolled into my studio on a small wooden dolly. Across the loft, behind a closed door, Willie (our first beloved yellow Labrador), barked relentlessly (“let me at him, let me at him”), eager to retrieve a bird he had detected solely by scent.

We were shooting a cover for the Village Voice, whimsically illustrating legendary rock critic Robert Christgau’s annual “Turkey Shoot,” his Thanksgiving-time roundup of newly-released music beneath his extremely witty contempt.

The turkey, from Long Island, was having a very good week and with an appearance on a late night talk show and a starring role in a Toyota ad, was earning more than anyone else in the studio.

His wrangler said of course his wranglee would wear the pink Walkman headphones and we put them around his neck, his ears being very small and hard to see. Luckily when we booked the turkey, we had thought to ask what color he was and realized the standard black headphones wouldn’t show up well against his feathers, particularly in the Voice’s mushy newsprint reproduction.

Willing to work for food, the turkey gobbled down little grainy bits offered by his wrangler and walked, as somehow instructed, horizontally back and forth across the seamless. And although seemingly comfortable with (or maybe oblivious to) my strobes, 20 minutes into the shoot, he suddenly freaked and launched his big bird body into the air. Frantic for a place to roost, he chose the gobo in front of one of the heads lighting the white seamless. The 1/4-inch foam core couldn’t support him and as it, the light, the umbrella and the stands fell toward the seamless, I caught them and the wrangler subdued our star. We continued, thankful that no birds or expensive photo equipment were hurt in the making of the Voice’s cover image.

BAMcinématek describes its current series “Turkeys for Thanksgiving,” as an “All-American feast of ripe-for-reappraisals films maudits,* which flopped on their original release but grow more fascinating each year.”

Included in the program is Robert Altman’s offbeat “Popeye;” William Friedkin’s nail-biter, “Sorcerer;” Francis Ford Coppola’s gorgeously stylized musical, “One From the Heart,” featuring great songs by Tom Waits and a luminous Nastassja Kinski; Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s costly Taylor/Burton “Cleopatra,” the epitome of Hollywood spectacle; and Michael Cimino’s profound and beautiful “Heaven’s Gate,” much- and long-maligned, and now recognized as a masterpiece.

“Turkeys for Thanksgiving” at BAMcinématek runs through Sunday, November 29.

*literally “cursed film”

Willie, NYC, c. 1996

Willie, NYC, c. 1996

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Films “Subversive and Sleek”

Christine Vachon and Todd Haynes, NYC, 3/19/91

Christine Vachon and Todd Haynes, NYC, 3/19/91

“Todd Haynes: The Other Side of Dreams,” the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s comprehensive survey of the great director’s films opens with a sneak preview of his latest, the engrossing and moving “Carol,” (which will be released on November 20). Exquisitely shot on Super 16 by Haynes’s longtime cinematographer Ed Lachman and superbly acted by Cate Blanchett (elegant and conflicted as the titular character) and Rooney Mara (with uneasy, watchful eyes), “Carol” (based on Patricia Highsmith’s early novel “The Price of Salt”) tells the deeply emotional story of two women who transcend the societal (and internalized) repression of the 50s to imagine a life together. Perfect in its details (residential interiors and public spaces, clothing, cars), the film’s art direction subtly situates the women in their time.

Haynes’s films, always visually arresting, have examined sexuality, class, women chafing against society’s expectations, the truth in melodrama and pop stardom (unbiopics of David Bowie and Bob Dylan). The series includes all of his features, two early shorts and “Mildred Pierce,” originally shown as a five-part HBO miniseries.

Each selection in the program is paired with a film by another director, chosen by Haynes, and which he cites as having influenced his work, including: George Stevens’s “A Place in the Sun” (with “Carol”); Russ Meyer’s “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (with “Dottie Gets Spanked”); Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Fox and His Friends” (with “Poison); Douglas Sirk’s “Imitation of Life” (with “Safe”); and Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s “Performance” (with “Velvet Goldmine”).

Russ Meyer, NYC, 12/1/94

Russ Meyer, NYC, 12/1/94

Nicholas Roeg, NYC, 12/5/96

Nicholas Roeg, NYC, 12/5/96

“20 Years of Killer Films,” a two film sidebar, celebrates the essential film production company co-founded in the mid-90s by Haynes’s fearless producer Christine Vachon with Pamela Koffler and Katie Roumel.

The double bill showcases two of the company’s ground-breaking films, “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999) and “I Shot Andy Warhol” (1996). The former, directed by Kimberly Peirce, recreates a young Nebraskan trans man’s sweet romance and brutal murder, with Hilary Swank, riveting as Brandon Teena, in her first Oscar-winning performance. Mary Harron directed the latter, featuring an intense Lili Taylor as Valerie Solanas, an important voice in the history radical feminism, but who also suffered with mental illness and in June 1968 shot the famous artist.

Kimberly Peirce, NYC, 9/21/99

Kimberly Peirce, NYC, 9/21/99

Mary Harron, NYC, 1/5/00

Mary Harron, NYC, 1/5/00

“Todd Haynes: The Other Side of Dreams” opens on Wednesday, November 18 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater and runs through Sunday, November 29. Todd Haynes will be in attendance for Q&As and intros, as indicated in the schedule.

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Clockwise, from top left: Eighth Avenue, Tenth Avenue, Desbrosses Street garage and Charlton Street

Clockwise from top left: Eighth Avenue, Tenth Avenue, Desbrosses Street garage, Charlton Street, NYC

I went to junior high school (a slightly different lineup of grades–7th, 8th and 9th–than what’s now called middle school) in the dark ages, my mother’s second favorite phrase* for temps perdu. It was a significantly unenlightened time, girls were required to take home economics, while boys went to shop. And although the dress code had been pried open wide enough to permit girls to wear pants (men’s 505 Levis were our favorites), Abby was hauled into the principal’s office when he couldn’t wrap his mind around how groovy (the adjective we used in the dark ages when we meant awesome) her gorgeous, bought in the West Village, lace-up sandals were.

In our future homemakers of America class we were supposed to learn to cook, bake and sew. Extra food during the school day was much appreciated by endlessly hungry adolescents but few had the talent or concentration for stitching by hand or machine.

Getting a zipper to lie straight and flat, covered over by the cloth it bisected was impossible and–unlike complicated ideas in history or science classes–not interesting. My grandmother, whose talent and skills made her the dark ages equivalent of H&M (she worked for a garment district firm, copying expensive dresses for the stylish woman on a budget) gave me just a little assist when I took the misshapen garment home ostensibly to work on it.

I laughed out loud, outside, the first time I saw a stylish woman wearing an otherwise well-made dress with an exposed zipper–I could have sewn that–and seemingly it’s an ongoing trend, adopted widely. I’ve even seen  pictures of Michelle Obama with her zipper showing.

*contact me for Doris’ first choice

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Africa’s Master Mirror Maker

Ousmane Sembene, NYC, 10/17/00

Ousmane Sembene, NYC, 10/17/00

The great Senegalese director, Ousmane Sembene (1923-2007), the son of a fisherman and a fifth-grade dropout, but with a vibrant curiosity about the world, realized he wanted to be a writer and a filmmaker during a six-month convalescence in a French hospital. Working on the docks in Marseilles hauling coffee bags, he had seriously injured his back and while bedridden read wide and deep, educating himself. And discovered that “my Africa was absent” in literature.

“Sembene!”co-directed, written and produced by Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman, celebrates its subject’s vast achievements: showing Africa to itself by creating the continent’s cinema and fearlessly giving a voice to the voiceless. Yet it’s also a clear-eyed portrait of a man, who consumed by his work, neglected his family and was sometimes less than honorable with colleagues.

Incorporating archival material, new footage, film clips and animated cut-outs to introduce “chapters,” the documentary discusses Sembene’s early work as a writer and his decision to concentrate on filmmaking, knowing in 1961 when he made his first film (a short, “The Cart Driver”) that illiteracy was rampant. Inventing a “new language to represent Africans,” Sembene recognized the need for “our own cinema, our own heroes.” And he knew to carefully light black faces or “there would be no detail,” the literal expression of his statement,  “If the other does not see me, I see myself.”

Sembene said, “I do (my job) because I want to talk to my people.” And he spoke sociopolitical truth to power, both European and African. In “Black Girl” (1966), his first feature, a young domestic worker is enslaved by her white employers. “Xala” (1975) spotlights the corruption of post-colonial African leaders and governments, while “Ceddo” (1977) condemns Islam as an often oppressive force.

Both films were banned or censored by the Senegalese government and after “Ceddo,” his African American wife, Carrie Moore, left him, citing his “bigamy”: “Creation is also his wife.” But Sembene’s work was championed by artists, freedom fighters and the international film community.

Sembene suffered an infertile period, nine years without being able to make a film and his next feature, “Camp de Thiaroye” (1986), while recognized as a masterpiece, was realized with funds he was overseeing to distribute to young African filmmakers. Sembene again found himself without resources.

Gadjigo, who grew up in Kidira, Senegal, longed to be French before discovering  Sembene’s short stories at 17. Hired as a professor of African Studies and French at Mt. Holyoke College in 1986, he approached Sembene after “Camp de Thiaroye,” about speaking to his students (and elsewhere in the United States) and was rudely rebuffed. (Sembene has said, “Frankness is not a downfall. It is my liberty.”)

Undeterred, Gadjigo traveled to Dakar, arriving uninvited at Galee Ceddo, Sembene’s seaside house. Eventually Sembene acquiesced and for 17 years, until his death, Gadjigo worked with his hero as his biographer and arranging for lectures and for the films to be shown internationally, often with Sembene in attendance.

Nearly blind and with compromised health, Sembene summoned his vitality to direct “Moolaade” (2004), a fierce film about resistance to the brutality of female genital mutilation. It is Sembene’s last film and was a prizewinner at Cannes.

Gadjigo is now working to “carry Sembene’s work forward” and has rescued his archive, is preserving his films and traveling in rural Senegal, showing the films to audiences that have never seen them.

“Sembene!” will open on Friday, November 6 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, followed by a release to select cities.

Ousmane Sembene, NYC, 4/17/90

Ousmane Sembene, NYC, 4/17/90

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The New World

Frederick Wiseman, NYC, 11/5/14

Frederick Wiseman, NYC, 11/5/14

Frederick Wiseman immersed himself for nine weeks, shooting 120 hours of footage which has coalesced into his remarkable new documentary (his 40th), “In Jackson Heights,” an exploration of the Queens neighborhood, home to a large and new immigrant population originating primarily from East Asia, China, Thailand, Tibet, Nepal, Mexico, Central and South America.

The new arrivals, are being remade in what the Daniel Dromm, the local councilperson calls with pride, “the most diverse neighborhood in the world,” and are in turn remaking Jackson Heights (and New York City), as part of a wave of immigration transforming the country. The neighborhood’s long-time, older residents–Jewish, Italian, Irish–are descended from another century’s immigrants.

Unlike immigrants who arrived in the early 20th century, the newer transplants, with access to 21st century technology–cellphones, the internet–and transportation, aren’t irreparably severed from their native countries but like those who arrived earlier, they have to find the balance between holding on to their culture and integrating.

Wiseman explores the polyglot streets (167 languages are spoken in Jackson Heights), observing the daily life of a community of citizens, green card holders and those without documents. On Roosevelt Avenue, under the elevated, and on other streets, he visits restaurants, religious (Catholic, Jewish, Muslim) institutions, classes for aspiring citizens and taxi drivers, nails and hair salons, clothing stores, an advocacy center for immigrants, the poor and working class (Make the Road New York), a gay group that has long held weekly meetings in the community center at the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights, and attends gatherings of small businesspeople resisting big boxification.

“In Jackson Heights” will open Wednesday, November 4 at Film Forum, for a two-week run. Wiseman will be in person at the 7:50 pm show, with Councilman Daniel Dromm, who will also introduce the 7:50 pm shows on Friday, November 13 and Monday, November 16.  This is Wiseman’s 11th film to debut at Film Forum and his ninth set in New York. The Museum of the Moving Image’s series of seven of these films runs though November 7.

I worked on a project in 2012 and 2013 investigating the financial life of the underclass in the United States, which here in New York was represented mostly by immigrants. We shot for several days in Jackson Heights.

Queens 0912_040_©robinholland

Queens 1212_114_©robinholland

Queens 1212_079_©robinholland

Queens 1212_123_©robinholland

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Reality TV Invades “Once Upon a Time”

Alice Rohrwacher, NYC, 10/02/14

Alice Rohrwacher, NYC, 10/2/14

Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), fierce, bearded, his long hair thinning, not fat but no longer taut, lives with Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher), appropriately named given her physicality and demeanor, and their four young daughters, in a ramshackle stone and brick house “that’s always been there.”

The parents in director and writer Alice Rohrwacher’s mesmerizing second feature, “The Wonders” (which won the Grand Prix at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival) are not wealthy urban residents affecting shabby pastoral chic on weekends. They’ve retreated to a remote area of the Italian countryside (between the regions of Umbria-Lazio and Tuscany, where Rohrwach grew up), to shield their children from what they view as the corruption and decline of the cities and civilization.

Wolfgang (with his apocalyptic worldview) and Angelica seek a purer life, earning their living keeping bees, and striving for self-sufficiency, raise sheep and have a large vegetable garden. Bodies are not kept secret–Wolfgang and Angelica are often only wearing underwear and welcome their children into their bed.

Gelsomina (Alexandra Lungu) the eldest, a quiet and watchful adolescent (with a Modigliani face), has a close relationship with her father who recognizes that she is the superior beekeeper and relies (too heavily) on her skills.

After a day of working with Gelsomina and his second daughter, Marinella (who’s slightly chubby and easily distracted) at the hives, removing the honey and recapturing a swarm, Wolfgang takes his daughters–the two youngest, Luna and Caterina, appear almost wild–to swim in a nearby turquoise lake. When a crew member from a TV show appears, asking them to be quiet, Wolfgang replies, “My daughters are free,” but the five are curious and follow the PA back to the set.

Milly Catena (Monica Bellucci), the beautiful hostess of a popular reality TV competition “Countryside Pleasures,” dressed in a kitschy white costume that evokes both Glinda the Good Witch of the North and a mermaid, is describing the local people as the camera rolls. She says, not entirely joking, that her newest farmer contestants, presenting their local products, will be from families “who live like in prehistoric times,” before tactfully offering, “like in once upon a time.”

Wolfgang is annoyed at the intrusion, always vigilant against “rich tourists (who) will come and buy everything…push us out” and uninterested in winning the “Countryside Pleasures” prize, described by Milly in the promo as a “bag of money” and a cruise. But Gelsomina is entranced when Milly gives her a flyer with the rules for entering the TV contest and a “jewel” from her long white hair (wig), which the sisters liken to sea foam. It’s the beginning of Gelsomina’s search for her place in the world and the possibility of abandoning her rural life, despite its small wonders (like the beam of light falling into the barn that she tells Marinella to “drink”).

Other intrusions disturb the family: a notice from the health department specifying strict code requirements for their honey production laboratory; the arrival of a silent, troubled German boy, placed at the farm to learn and work, his last chance before being shipped to juvy; Marinella suffers a deep cut working with the honey centrifuge; and Gelsomina’s secret entry to “Countryside Pleasures” secures the family and their luminous honey a place on Milly’s show, shot on location on the lake’s island.

Using beautiful camera movements in the powerful and disturbing final sequence, Rohrwacher indicates the impermanence of human choice and yearning.

Marvelously, Rohrwacher did not use CGI making The Wonders.” She says, “I know bees very well and I worked for a while in honey production. I adore bees, even if it was
not easy to convince the industry insurance companies that nothing bad would happen during the shoot. I insisted on using only real bees in the film…I wanted to capture the feeling of the materia and also of the actors working with real bee hives and swarms. The only way to accomplish this was to do many tests. I remember that the parents of Alexandra Lungu (who plays Gelsomina) were very happy: they said that if the film didn’t work out, at least their daughter learned a real skill and could become a beekeeper!”

“The Wonders” will open on Friday, October 30 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, followed by a national rollout.

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So Much Better Than Snakes on a Plane…

IRT 1 Train, Times Square Station, NYC, 10/22/15

IRT 1 Broadway-7th Avenue Local, Times Square Station, NYC, 10/22/15

…a King Charles spaniel puppy on the 1 train. I considered calling this post “Stand clear of the closing jaw,” but the little sweetie poking his/her sleepy head out of an L.L Bean boating bag looks so yummy, it’s more likely that he/she would be taken a bite of, rather than chomp down on anyone. But then again, puppy teeth are like needles.

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